Comedy 101: Levity Live stand-up class gives lessons on laughs

Newsday Westchester's Chris Serico performs a stand-up comedy Newsday Westchester's Chris Serico performs a stand-up comedy set at Levity Lounge in West Nyack. (April 23, 2013) Photo Credit: Elizabeth Daza

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"I'm interested in giving women salsa lessons," I told my Manhattan Comedy School classmates a week before our April 23 show at Levity Live in West Nyack, "but those Tostitos jars are really tough to open."

A few polite giggles crept their way to my side of Levity Live's private-party room. Waiting a beat, I gave my familiar audience a double-take and added, "Think about it," cajoling the laughs I'd anticipated for the joke I'd scripted.

While supportive, a room full of comedians -- even budding ones -- might be the hardest to win over. For the first Manhattan Comedy School class in Levity Live history, the toughest of the tough crowd was instructor Cory Kahaney, a "Late Show with David Letterman" and "Last Comic Standing" vet who's also performed a half-dozen times on "Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson."

Kahaney noticed the final run-through of my disjointed set topped seven minutes, more than two minutes above the five each of us would be given for our graduation show at Levity Live.

"You were throwing darts up there," she noted, before dissecting the act, joke by joke, and suggesting cuts and groupings to create a more seamless set. It would be the sixth and final time she and the 14 amateur comedians in the room would make these kinds of recommendations before the big show in front of friends, family and other Palisades Center stragglers inside Levity Live's theater.

MOTIVATION: 'EVERYBODY WANTS TO LEARN HOW TO BE FUNNY'

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A comedy fan since the moment my parents started making peek-a-boo faces at me, I took the class to prove I could fare better than my gong show stand-up performance as an Eastchester High School senior. That set ended when someone from the restless teenage crowd slammed a mallet into the giant Zildjian -- and, in turn, my soul. More than a decade later, I'd enjoy five levels of improv comedy classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City, but always found myself wishing I could write and edit my material rather than make it all up on the spot.

Two of my classmates, Middletown resident Megan Welch and Monsey resident Scott Sanders, had their own reasons for signing up for the local Manhattan Comedy School classes.

"This is my first venture into stand-up comedy," said Welch, 27. "I've always been interested in comedy. I was obsessed with 'Saturday Night Live' as a kid."

Sanders, a 33-year-old Clarkstown North High School alumnus who grew up in New City, was a little more familiar with the craft. "I started doing comedy, about nine years ago, for a very short period of time," he said. "I decided to take a second crack at it, by taking this class."

Although several students had already been pursuing comedy as a career, Manhattan Comedy School director Andy Engel told me before the class started that many who sign up aren't necessarily trying to make a living off it.

"We get people in the classes that are anybody from 18 and up, all backgrounds, all professions," he added. "Everybody wants to learn how to be funny. You can apply it to countless jobs. Many people who take the class are never going to quit their day job, and they take it because it's a lot safer than jumping out of an airplane or walking on hot coals, but the exhilaration is better. . . . It's truly the ultimate natural high."

The night of the graduation show, while the friendliest possible comedy audience filled the lower half of Levity Live's theater, Kahaney gathered her students in the backstage party room where we'd swapped jokes the six previous Tuesday nights. She split us into two lines of seven students, facing each other, and asked that we hold invisible boxes and take turns giving silly presents to the person in front of us. The second time through the same exercise, she asked recipients not to laugh, no matter how funny, absurd or gross the fictional gifts were.

"Which did you like better: When the other person laughed or when they didn't laugh?" she asked. "Now, when the other person didn't laugh, did anybody die?"

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Her final advice, in so many words, was to enjoy the experience, to remember that it's just the beginning, and to revel in the fact that comedy is often a sloppy art form. And with that, we headed to the back of the theater, where the night's host, comedy pro Ben Rosen, collected our names and made sure he was pronouncing them correctly for our introductions.

The house lights were lowered. The crowd applauded. After 18 hours' worth of class time, and even more hours spent writing and editing material at home, it was finally showtime.

SHOWTIME: 'PRESSURE TO PERFORM'

After Rosen warmed up the crowd, he introduced recent "America's Got Talent" auditioner Kerri Louise, who'd sat in on a couple of the classes and kept building crowd momentum. That led to the first student act of the night, Michael Sangregrorio of Garfield, N.J., who kept the crowd laughing in his first major performance and set a high bar for the rest of the night.

Welch, who was still working out the kinks the week before her performance, had the crowd in the palm of her hand from her very first joke: "Man, there's a lot of people here tonight," she said. "I haven't felt this much pressure to perform since my boyfriend's last birthday."

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It was my turn, two sets later. I grabbed the mic, made eye contact with the few faces I could make out beneath the stage lights, and poured everything I had into the words I'd practiced in front of my mirror for the bulk of the previous weekend.

"I tried dating a redhead once, and I couldn't get past the whole thing about her wanting nothing to do with me," I said, faring far better than I did with the Tostitos joke I'd slashed from my act.

Memorizing my set for the first time allowed me to improvise and engage the audience. When only one person whooped after I asked the crowd if anyone else was from my home county of Westchester, I responded, "My driver's here."

Not everything in my set worked, including one meandering bit about how my TV is lazy for saying to "check [my] local listings." But I won back the crowd with my musings on music. "I love rap music, but I'm afraid that if rappers ever saw how earnestly I enjoyed their music, they'd just quit," I said. "Remember when Jay-Z retired that time? That's because someone from his crew saw me dancing to 'Big Pimpin.' He had 99 problems, and I was all of them."

Sanders was the last student act to take the stage, a reward for bringing the most audience members to the show -- and perhaps, in part, because he was one of the class' most consistent performers. "My favorite [movie] is the first 'Rocky,' " he said. "It was such an inspiration to me. [It taught me] that if I worked really hard and believed in myself, I could, someday, tie."

Sanders landed another knockout punch, and an applause break, for this one: "This woman comes up to me and she says, 'You look like you should be on the 'Jersey Shore.' [I replied,] 'Before or after [Hurricane] Sandy?'"

Earning the last laugh that night was Kahaney, herself, who closed the show on a night when the pros killed and some students fared better than others, but nobody crashed and burned.

AFTERMATH: 'EVERYBODY WANTED TO LAUGH'

Welch and Sanders, who admitted to some nerves before the show, were pleased with their performances.

"Tonight went really well -- better than I expected," Welch said. "The crowd tonight was really great. Everybody wanted to laugh."

"What surprised me the most, actually, about tonight's performance, [was] my engaging with the crowd," Sanders added. "I wasn't sure I'd be able to do that tonight, but I actually had a couple of jokes that I [improvised]."

Interviewed later in the week, the class' instructors seemed equally pleased.

"I was really shocked to see that some of those comics were on the stage for the very first time," Louise told me via email. "You all seemed so comfortable up there on stage and there were no real pauses/uncomfortable [moments], mishaps or mistakes that usually first-timers would experience."

Kahaney agreed, saying that, overall, she was content with the performance of the class, which she described as "above-average." Asked about her final thoughts as the show began, she replied, "What crossed my mind was, 'What am I going to order for dinner?'"

For more about the Manhattan Comedy School, which runs the stand-up classes at Levity Live, visit www.manhattancomedyschool.com.

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